Arthur Silber has just posted another installment of his important series on “Tribalism.” In these vital essays, Silber is examining some of the underlying causes – and most dangerous expressions – of the unthinking, reflexive and delusional loyalties that bind us in fearful obedience to the groupthink of the various tribes with which we identify ourselves: national, religious, ideological, political, ethnic, sexual, social and so on. The essays draw on detailed examples to illuminate general principles – principles which are themselves nuanced, dynamic and observational, not dogmatic. They will richly repay a full reading.

By fortuitous coincidence, the Guardian today provides us with a striking example of political tribalism in action: an article by writer Anna Shapiro, in which the literal abandoment of the mind and will to the guidance of the Leader (in this case, Barack Obama) is openly celebrated. This is accompanied by a deep personal and emotional identification with the Leader, and a compulsive rejection of any and all criticism of his noble deeds; such negativity is derided as “manufactured controversy” engineered by the “jackal-like” media.

Apparently, no right-thinking person (or right-feeling person, we should probably say) could possibly be troubled by, say, Obama’s retention of the leadership of Bush’s malevolent war machine; nor should any good person question the Leader’s “investigation into official standards regarding methods of interrogation.” We should eschew all “trumped-up criticism,” and put everything in Obama’s hands, because he’s “much smarter” than we are.

The column is, as they say, a real piece of work. Here are a few excerpts:

“What a relief,” said my friend Mark after the election of Barack Obama in November – but not for the reason you’d think, exactly. “Finally, I can stop arguing in my head with all these conservatives, trying to sway faith with reason, you know?” … Mark says he’s now been able to stop because, “Obama’s much smarter than I am. I’ve handed it off to him. Besides, we won.”

…Little did I know in November, though, that, as of January 20, I’d be waking in the middle of the night worrying about how the man we’d voted for would manage – worrying how he’d even sleep. Even as I marvelled at how many great things he managed to set in motion within the first 24 hours – 24 hours! – I flinched at the sight of headlines making innuendoes about his connection to Blagojevich; complaining of former Clinton or Bush pols in his administration; questioning the investigation into official standards regarding methods of interrogation even as Obama scheduled the closing of Guantánamo and the immediate end of torturing; criticising the stimulus package as too broad or too limited; complaining that healthcare for another 8 million children was far too little; and hey, where was that puppy he promised?

…But I identify with Obama’s need to heal rifts, and so it tears me apart: all this tearing apart. Hasn’t he got enough troubles? Must he part the Red Sea?

But it’s more personal, and at least as preoccupying as my friend Mark’s former arguments. I wake up at 4am and wonder if Obama is awake at 4am. I wonder how he decides what to do first and what to do second and what to do third. I wonder when he gets to read, and if there will be time for anything besides policy papers. I want to take care of him. And I realise that started as far back as the first time I saw him on a platform in front of a crowd of people.

…So I’ll continue to wake up worrying about President Obama, and having arguments with headlines, in my own way trying to shield the forces of truth from trumped-up criticism and phony balance.

The “forces of truth” are with one’s tribe, and its designated leader, you see. Everyone outside that magic circle is outside the truth itself, is cast into outer darkness. Go read Silber for much more on the ramifications of this pernicious — and universal — dynamic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *